MORGANTOWN — Congress has until Dec. 20 to either pass a package of 12 spending bills to keep government working, or pass another temporary continuing resolution, to replace the one that expires that day, and kick the can past the holiday break. 

The whole package totals $1.37 trillion, but West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, who both serve on the Appropriations Committee, particularly have their eyes on including the Bipartisan American Miners Act in whatever passes, to preserve miners’ healthcare and pensions. 

Democrat Manchin said on Thursday that he’s going to make sure no one leaves for Christmas break until that’s taken care of. “We might be here on Christmas Eve, we might be here till the New Year. But we’re not going to walk away from the people that are going to lose their healthcare … to have their pensions reduced by the first quarter of next year.” 

He’s going to do that, he said, by refusing to grant unanimous consent to move legislation along. 

The Senate explains: “A senator may request unanimous consent on the floor to set aside a specified rule of procedure so as to expedite proceedings. If no Senator objects, the Senate permits the action, but if any one senator objects, the request is rejected.” 

Manchin said, “I have let everybody know that I am not signing off on unanimous consent” without action on the Miners Act. “We have sufficient ways to pay for it. We have everything ready to go.” 

Manchin said he’s used the unanimous consent leverage only once before – in 2017 to pass the miners healthcare bill. 

As a reminder, the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan is headed for insolvency by 2022 – or 2020 with the pending bankruptcy of Murray Energy – due to coal company bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis. The lawmakers said the pensions of 100,000 retirees – averaging just $586 per month –are at stake. 

The United Mine Workers of America has said 1,200 retirees stand to lose their health care at the end of this year, 12,000 more will lose health care within a few months, and more than 82,000 will likely see drastic cuts to their pensions a few months after that. 

The Bipartisan American Miners Act would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to require the Treasury Department to transfer additional funds to the UMWA pension plan from excess Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund money. It also will amend the Coal Act to include the 2018 and 2019 bankruptcies in the miners’ healthcare fix that passed in 2017. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a bill cosponsor, along with Manchin and Capito. Manchin and Capito have repeatedly condemned the Senate’s inaction on the measure in press releases, news conferences and floor speeches. 

“It’s just inhumane to do what they’re doing,” Manchin said. “There’s no reason for it at all. Mitch McConnell could put it on there [one of the spending bills or the continuing resolution] very easily.” 

Republican Capito said she’s talked with Manchin about his plan. Meanwhile, she’s working a different angle as part of the Senate leadership team. 

“I’m working hard with the leader. I’m working hard with the relevant committee chairs,” she said. 

“I’ve had numerous conversations with the White House, the president himself, and with Sen. McConnell … pushing the urgency of this issue. … We’re laser focused on trying to get something by the end of the year.” 

She’s looking for the right vehicle – one of the 12 spending bills or the continuing resolution – to amend it into. 

The Miners Act existed in several forms, in the Senate and House, before becoming the Bipartisan Act with McConnell’s endorsement. Capito said, “We’re a lot further along than we were before we introduced the Bipartisan Miners Act.” This one has McConnell’s signature and the topic has been the subject of more active conversations. 

She’s optimistic, but it’s not a slam dunk. “In this area there’s no guarantees until you see it in writing.”


Other measures 

Congress is set to adjourn for break on Dec. 20, and all 12 measures have to reach Senate-House compromise approval by then, unless they kick the can. 

The various Appropriations subcommittees have until today – Friday, Dec. 6 – to make committee leaders aware of any sticking points in the bills they’re handling. 

If they don’t settle for a continuing resolution, the 12 measures, as approved by both chambers, could go to President Trump as a single omnibus or as two or more packages. 

Manchin is confident about measures to benefit West Virginia scattered among the 12 bills. “We’re in pretty good shape on the whole thing. … Shelley and I work very close together on that.” 

Capito said, “Pretty much every bill touches our state. … It’s important that we get our house in order.” 

Those bills include funding for federal agencies with West Virginia offices – NASA, the FBI and NETL, for example – along with money for roads and bridges, healthcare and the opioid crisis, and higher education. 

Last year they had six bills ready to go within the proper time frame, Capito said. “When we wait like this it’s really a disservice to the taxpayer because we’re not imprinting our priorities like they want us to when they vote for us. … Compromise is where we need to go. We’re not in a very compromising time right now.”